»  National Review Online Diary

  August 2008


Book of the month …     … is undoubtedly Charles Murray's Real Education.  It is astonishing to see 200 pages of plain common sense written about education, a topic I had thought long since drowned deep beneath an ocean of nonsense, venality, and lies. Some kids are just not very good at academic stuff, says Murray, and we don't know any way to make them good at it. At any given type of ability — physical, musical, mental — half of us are below average.

Good grief! Are you still allowed to say that above a whisper? Let alone publish it? Murray:

[O]ur best educational experiences were ones in which adults insisted we could do better when in fact we could do better; our worst educational experiences were ones in which adults insisted we could do better when in fact we could not do better.

On this theme, Steve Sailer was scathing back in July about California's new requirement that from 2011 on, all public-school eighth-graders will have to take Algebra 1. As one of Steve's commenters asked: "Why not require them all to bench press 400 lbs?"

Getting any of Charles Murray's eminently sensible proposals implemented will be uphill work. The college racket is now a vast and potent force, practically an estate of the realm. Chapter 3 of Real Education, on the other hand, is titled "Too Many People are going to College." That of course is true, but don't expect the racketeers to take it lying down. One of them, Ben Wildavsky (son of Aaron), stepped up (in his own mind, more likely down) to review Real Education for the Wall Street Journal:

While accusing education reformers of being wooly-headed romantics … Mr. Murray conjures up a romantic vision of his own. In his brave new world, the bell curve of abilities is cheerfully acknowledged; students and workers gladly accept their designated places in the pecking order; and happy, well-paid electricians and plumbers go about their business while their brainy brethren read Plato and prepare for the burdens of ruling the world.

Um, isn't this what already happens? The plumbers and electricians I know do seem pretty happy in their work. Does Mr. Wildavsky want them to go around seething with resentment that they were not tapped to be Ambassador to France, Chairman of Goldman Sachs, or President of Yale University? I suspect he does, actually. How shall we ever overthrow the sexist, racist, classist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist order if the populace is happy? Still, let's be grateful for small mercies: Mr. Wildavsky somehow got all the way through his review without once mentioning Hitler.

Perhaps it's unfair to write off all opposition to Real Education, and to real education, as self-interest on the part of power- and money-seeking racketeers. Some of the objectors — including quite possibly that WSJ reviewer — actually believe in the "no child left behind" flapdoodle.

Some part of the opposition is in fact metaphysical. One of my readers suggested, correctly I am sure, that religious fundamentalists will object to Charles Murray's thesis on the grounds that God could not possibly have given some of us better innate cognitive abilities than others. Since God seems to have no compunction about giving some of us cleft palates, hare lips, hydrocephaly, and spina bifida, I can't see why our cognitive functions should be spared His caprice; but of course, mind is supposed to be different.

Postscript, added a few days later:   Did I say "uphill"? Think north face of the Eiger, Charles. The College Board came out with some statistics on the 2008 SAT results. There was a report in the Washington Post. It included the following quote from Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board:

"It's essential that all students strive to attend college — and then succeed in their classes and, ultimately, graduate … We're gratified to see that our country is moving increasingly toward being a nation of college graduates."

Why stop with college? Why should not everyone go to graduate school? I mean, for heaven's sake, we don't want people working before the age of 25, do we? Think of the impact on their dignity, their sense of self-worth! Come to think of it, why should graduate school be considered the end of the line? Shouldn't every citizen attend some institute of advanced research, at least for a few years? If we were to admit that there are people among us not capable of resolving chains of partial differential equations, revealing colonialist subtexts in The Faerie Queene, untangling the court intrigues of late-Mogul India, or giving fruit flies extra legs by fiddling with their genes — why, what would that be, if not the soft bigotry of low expectations?

That sound you hear? Oh, that's Charles Murray screaming uncontrollably. Call a medic, someone.


Word of the month.     Dustsceawung. From Peter Ackroyd's 2002 book Albion, page 59:

There is a word in Old English which belongs wholly to that civilisation — "dustsceawung," meaning contemplation of dust. It is a true image of the Anglo-Saxon mind, or at least an echo of that consciousness which considered transience and loss to be part of the human estate; it was a world in which life was uncertain and the principal deity was fate or destiny or "wyrd."

Me like this word. Especially this month, with both the Olympics and the political conventions going on. Tune your TV to one of the news channels, pour yourself a good stiff drink, and settle back in an armchair for an hour or so of dustsceawung.


Sheb-vul.     On Radio Derb early in the month I mentioned the kerfuffle about a labor union — a labor union! — at the Tyson Foods poultry-processing plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee, scrapping Labor Day for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr. There are 250 Somali Muslims at the plant, you see, and the union — it is the RWDSU, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — is anxious to take care of them.

So far, so appalling. There is, however, no part of this great nation to which Radio Derb does not penetrate. A listener in Shelbyville kindly wrote in to tell me that the name of this fine town is pronounced "sheb-vul" by those fortunate enough to live there. Having grown up among places named Towcester (but pronounced "toe-stuh"), Hednesford ("hedge-foot"), Bicester ("bister") and Cogenhoe ("cook-no"), I am very tolerant of eccentric local pronunciations. Long may they endure! Greetings to all in Shelbyville, pronounced "sheb-vul," from John Derbyshire, pronounced "dah-bi-shuh."


Radio Derb in China.     On the subject of Radio Derb's penetration, I should add that I have had emails from listeners in China, who tell me they have no trouble listening to RD over there, so that either the ChiComs really have let up on their censorship of the Internet, at least for the Olympic season, or Radio Derb is now such a potent force they do not dare block it for fear of the storm of international outrage that would ensue. I can't think of any other possibilities …

Stalin, according to Robert Conquest, was once translated in the British communist newspaper Daily Worker as having called for the organs of the Party to penetrate the backward parts of the proletariat. In the same spirit, I call on the organs of truth and conservatism to penetrate ever more deeply into the less enlightened regions of the world. Radio Derb will be thrusting away in the forefront!


No armor against fate.     My neighbor has a front lawn with embedded automatic sprinklers that start up around six in the morning. They overshoot a bit, soaking a small region of my driveway, about eighteen inches wide at its widest.

I get a morning newspaper delivered by a guy who drives by quite fast and lobs the newspaper out of his window onto my driveway, also around six a.m. If it's raining, the newspaper is double-bagged so it doesn't get wet. In fine weather, though, it's just single-bagged, one end of the bag open.

What are the odds of that newspaper landing on my driveway, every fine day, every blessed one, with the open end of its bag resting in the 0.01 percent of driveway area that gets soaked by my neighbor's sprinkler? I ask again, WHAT ARE THE DAMN FOOL BLOODY ODDS?


While antlers clash.     Hua Guofeng died August 20 aged 87. Remember him? No? Well, he held supreme power in the world's most populous nation for a short spell in the late 1970s. Being unable to remember him, though, is highly forgivable, as Hua was the very embodiment of the word "mediocrity." You can, in fact, get the full measure of the man by noting that the only doctrine ever promulgated under his name was "The Two Whatevers" (liang-ge fan-shi). This doctrine, intended to ensure ideological continuity following Mao Tse-tung's death in 1976, urged citizens to abide by whatever Mao had decided and to follow whatever instructions Mao had left.

Hua's rise to power consisted of being sucked up into a vacuum. Like many another despot before him, Mao, with the assistance of his trained poodle Chou En-lai, had ruthlessly purged his country's leadership of anyone with sufficient character to oppose him. Thus when Chou died in January 1976, the nondescript Hua was appointed Chou's successor as Premier. When Mao himself died a few months later, Hua also became Chairman of the Communist Party, thus in theory holding supreme power. He was soon out-maneuvered by Deng Xiaoping. Shunted off to a sinecure, he died in bed. The people of China might be forgiven for reacting to news of Hua's death in the spirit of his doctrine: Whatever.

Hua was in fact an example of an occasional phenomenon in history:  the Supreme Nonentity. In systems that have no settled rules for leadership succession, or that have mislaid their rules, it sometimes happens that while the alpha-male twelve-pointers are clashing antlers in a forest-shaking combat for supremacy, some colorless nobody like Hua will wander into the palace, pick up the discarded crown, and wear it for a while. Once the major combat has been decided, of course, the victor will toss out the nobody without ceremony, though generally allowing him to die peacefully in bed, like Hua, because such a person is not worth the bother of an execution.

An example from the classical world is Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, third member of the Second Triumvirate in the last years of republican Rome. The other two members were Mark Antony and Octavian Caesar, real twelve-pointers both. Alfred Duggan was so impressed by Lepidus's utter lack of charisma (if that's a thing one can be impressed by), he wrote a rather good novel about the man.

An interesting side-question here is whether the regressed-to-the-mean offspring of mighty rulers, of which there have been all too many, can fairly be included in the category of Supreme Nonentities when they inherit Dad's position. In some cases, I think so. My favorite here is Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, who ruled England for nine months in 1658-9 before being unseated by disgruntled army officers. Historian Austin Woolrych, after noting Richard's "affability," gets to the heart of the problem:

He had no instinctive political flair, and he lacked the sheer zest for the exercise of authority that his office demanded.

Richard did, though, bequeath to us a neat little historical quiz question that nobody who doesn't already know the answer ever gets. Question: Of all the people who have ruled England, from earliest Anglo-Saxon times to the present day, which one lived the longest? Most people, after a moment's thought, used to say Victoria, though clued-in folk nowadays know that the present Queen has actually beaten Vicky. Nobody ever remembers poor Richard Cromwell, though he beat them all, living to nearly 86.

I've been trying to come up with other specimens of Supreme Nonentity. The U.S.S.R. threw up a couple: Georgy Malenkov, Konstantin Chernenko. Rick Brookhiser thought there should be one in the Directory of the French Revolution, but I couldn't find a good example there. The organization producing the Supreme Nonentity need not be a state: there must be some S.N.s in the history of the Mafia; and power plays in the executive suites of big corporations must occasionally allow an S.N. to shuffle forward for a moment of accidental glory. And what about fiction? I thought the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms would contain at least one S.N., since it is pretty much continuous antler-clashing from cover to cover, but nobody came to mind (though there are a couple of regressed-to-the-mean offspring in there) …


Shums and tee-ums.     Going back to pronunciation oddities for a moment, here's yet another way to divide the human race, or at least the English-speaking portions of it.

On August 10 we went to a dance festival in a local park, with performances by all the local dance groups, from ballet to jazz and tap. Great fun, agreeably seasoned with parental pride. My attention got snagged at the very beginning, though, when a couple of local notables gave little speeches to thank all who had made the event possible. (I hereby add my thanks to theirs.)

Among these enablers was something called the Long Island Dance Consortium. Very worthy people indeed — you'll hear no argument from me on that. But … how do you say it? Speaker X thanked the Long Island Dance Consorshum. Speaker Y, however, extended her gratitude to the Long Island Dance Consortee-um.

Shum or tee-um? Which are you? This is fundamental — like conservative or liberal, Yankee or Met, introvert or extrovert, ecto-, meso-, or endomorph. I'm a tee-um myself. How does it cut by sex? (My guess: women tend to be shums, while far more men are tee-ums.) By region? (I bet the South is solid shum. They love their sibilants down there.) By race? (Not going there, suffering from race fatigue already this election season.)

Is there any similar division in other languages? I doubt it. Dialectical variation aside (and I am pretty sure we're talking about individual inclination here, not dialectical variation), few languages have as many optional pronunciations as English. I once made a German friend hoot with laughter by referring, in English, to the Arch of Diocletian, pronouncing the Emperor's name "die-oh-clee-shun." I suppose my friend wanted me to say something like "Dee-oh-klets-ee-ahn," probably while standing stiffly to attention and clicking my heels. Any other pronunciation in German will get you hustled off by the Pronunciation Correction Police (Ausspracheberichtigungspolizei). But here now:  If I'm a shun for "Diocletian," why aren't I a shum for "consortium"? Oh, the heck with it.


Poshlust.     'Er Indoors made me sit and watch the Olympic opening show. I need to be a little careful here — domestic harmony is a key value in my life. And I am just not a son et lumière fan at the best of times. I don't get anything out of these things. There's no story. I never experience anything above the level of: "Hey, that's kind of neat. Wonder how they did that?" Not nothing, but not exactly massed batteries of pleasure neurons firing off in unison.

Possibly I'm missing something worthwhile, but to me, sound'n'light shows are the very quintessence of poshlust. This is the Russian word that Vladimir Nabokov introduced us to in his biography of Nikolai Gogol, p. 63 ff. in the New Directions paperback edition. King Vlad:

The Russian language is able to express by means of one pitiless word the idea of a certain widespread defect for which the other three European languages I happen to know possess no special term. … Various aspects of the idea which Russians concisely express by the term poshlust … are split among several English words and thus do not form a definite whole …

Vlad goes on to explain that poshlust names a certain rather particular kind of bad taste. Russians (he says) particularly associate poshlust with Germans. This leads to some apologizing. The book was written in 1944, when of course Russians and Germans were at war. Venturing into anti-Germanism is therefore tricky:

To exaggerate the worthlessness of a country at the awkward moment when one is at war with it … means walking dangerously close to that abyss of poshlust which yawns so universally at times of revolution or war.

He none the less goes on to tell an anti-German story from Gogol's table talk of around 1840. The subject was Germany. Gogol tells how a German of his acquaintance had won the heart of his beloved:

"The dwelling place of the maiden whom he had long been courting without success stood on the bank of some lake or other, and there she would be every evening, sitting on her balcony and doing two things at once: knitting a stocking and enjoying the view. My German gallant being sick of the futility of his pursuit finally devised an unfailing means whereby to conquer the heart of his cruel Gretchen. Every evening he would take off his clothes, plunge into the lake and, as he swam there, right under the eyes of his beloved, he would keep embracing a couple of swans which had been specially prepared by him for that purpose. I do not quite know what these swans were supposed to symbolize, but I do know that for several evenings on end he did nothing but float about and assume pretty postures with his birds under that precious balcony. Perhaps he fancied there was something poetically antique and mythological in such frolics, but whatever notion he had, the result proved favorable to his intentions: the lady's heart was conquered just as he thought it would be, and soon they were happily married."

You have, says Nabokov, "poshlust in its ideal form … in this epic of the blond swimmer and the two swans he fondled."

I say again (is that the sound of ice cracking beneath my feet?) that any son et lumière show falls upon my withered senses as irredeemably poshlust. This is not a complaint against the Olympic opening in particular. In fact, as son et lumière goes, I think it was rather well done. And yet … the plonking symbolism, the contrived artsiness, the rehearsed-to-death regimentation — it's all so un-human, so totalitarian, so affectless, so … so … poshlust. To me. And this is no doubt my fault, my fault, my own most grievous fault. Sorry, honey.


Where were the Irish?.     [Later in the month]  OK, the darn Olympics are over. I've been having a bit of fun with the medal tables. For one thing, I wanted to see how the Anglosphere stacked up against the Francosphere and the Hispanosphere.

There are some argument-starting decisions to be made. Should I include the Lusitanics (Portugal and Brazil) in the Hispanosphere? I did. Does Belgium really belong in the Francosphere? Not if you ask a Walloon, but I included it anyway. Canada:  Anglo- or Franco-?  Morocco:  Franco- or Hispano-?  There is no end to this sort of thing. I did my best.

[note added when archiving:  Oops — I got my Walloons and my Flemings mixed up there. As usual in such cases, I'm going to blame the NRO editors.]

Result:  The Anglosphere magnificently out-performed the snooty Francophones and snoozing Hispanophones. Overall medals, Anglo-, Franco-, and Hispano-:  277, 50, 76.  Golds:  88, 10, 17. English rules!

(If you scale by population, the Francophones come out slightly ahead on total medals, though Anglos still get the gold. If you take India out of the Anglo column, Anglos are clear winners even when scaled by population.)

The great mystery about the Anglosphere is: Where are the Irish? Three medals (one silver, two bronze), all for boxing. That's the best they can do, on all that corned beef and cabbage? Not to mention potatoes:

Boswell.  Good living, I suppose, makes the Londoners strong.
Johnson.  Why, Sir, I don't know that it does. Our chairmen from Ireland, who are as strong men as any, have been brought up upon potatoes. Quantity makes up for quality.

Never mind. The Irish had their great moment of Olympic glory at the 1908 London games, as told by Roger D. McGrath in the July 28th issue of The American Conservative:

When the American team arrived in London, the English were dismayed to learn that the U.S. track and field team was composed largely of Irishmen, either Irish-born or born in the United States to Irish immigrant parents …

Uh-oh. Fortunately the Olympic spirit prevailed … just barely.


Goodbye Gertie.     Several fine old names have fallen out of fashion over in Airstrip One. (The place formerly known as "England.") Not a single Gertrude was registered there in 2005, and only two Ednas (for which latter, I think Barry Humphries should take the blame). William, Thomas, Elizabeth, and Olivia are holding up well though.


Older Sisters' Club.     My daughter Nellie, age 15½, took her first solo trip abroad, going to stay with my niece and her family in London. The trip was a great success. Nellie, who is a cheerful and sociable girl, bonded happily with the transatlantic Derbs.

The bonding may, in fact, have gone too far. Nellie is older sister to Danny. My niece is older sister to my nephew. Her mother, my sister, is older sister to me. My niece's daughter Kesta, just a bit younger than Nellie, is older sister to three rambunctious boys. (Nellie is the big one there; Kesta, the redhead.) Rumor has it that my sister and my daughter, my niece and her daughter, have formed a Put-Upon Older Sister's secret society, with a mission statement deploring the existence of younger brothers, lamenting the favoritism of parents towards same, and so on.

Pah! I hereby announce the formation of an Oppressed Younger Brothers Club. We shall meet once a month for a good hearty grumble about how those bossy older sisters have turned us into wimps and neurotics, addled with self-esteem issues, sexual inadequacy, etc. That'll show 'em! …

 … Except, of course, that nothing ever does. Those accursed older sisters still hog all the attention at family gatherings, still fill up the bathroom cabinet with their cosmetic junk, still bring boyfriends home and sit on the sofa exchanging knowing glances and whispered intimacies with them while we're not yet even sure what girls are for, still snitch out all our misdemeanors to Mom and Dad, still greet our attempts at coolness with scorching sarcasm … When we are little and birthdays come around, we alway imagine we will catch up and overtake that irritating big sister in age one day. We never do. She is always older, always more knowing, always sarcastic. Grrrr!


Over the Boardwalk.     No real vacation this year — too busy, too broke. I did take wife and son down to Atlantic City for a couple of days, though, while Nellie was away. I had some minor business down there, and thought I may as well make a vacation of it. The place has beaches, after all, and a boardwalk, and casinos.

I'd forgotten that it also has slums. In fact, away from the casinos, the place is a slum. Go a couple of hundred yards in the wrong direction and you're among seedy, ill-kept houses from in front of which obese, slack-eyed people stare at you with dull hostility, apparently having nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon. Well, I suppose it's useful to be reminded that such places exist — are in fact rather common all over the U.S.A. Don't people want to work, learn, be useful, improve themselves? No, an awful lot of people don't, not while they can slouch around scowling at strangers and eating more than their metabolisms are able to process. Sad, very sad. Of course, if they had all gone to college, things would be so different!


Math Corner.     A reader sent this in:

You can flip coins until the number of heads and tails are equal. The payoff is the number of flips. So, half of all games end after two flips and pay two dollars …

I'm not sure how you make a betting game out of this, but I'm certainly willing to tackle the question:  What proportion of games, on average, end after exactly T coin tosses? Pretty obviously T has to be an even number. The chance that a game will end after two tosses is of course, as my reader says, 0.5. A couple of minutes' doodling should convince you that for four tosses the answer is 0.125. That is, one-eighth of games on average will end on the fourth toss. And then …?

[Solution here]